• The Queen by Josh Levin ** (of 4)

    In principle, the story of Linda Taylor, the woman stuck with the appellation of America’s Welfare Queen, upon whom so much political scorn has been laid is worthy of a solid retelling. She is reviled by all working class taxpayers for her rampant and rambunctious fleecing of America’s welfare systems. Ronald Reagan made her infamous as he campaigned for President, mentioning the Welfare Queen as representative of all that was wrong with government in America. Linda Taylor had amassed scores of aliases, ID cards, addresses, social security numbers, and heartbreaking sob stories in pursuit of tens of thousands of dollars and Reagan repeated that description every chance he got.

    Buried beneath Reagan’s rhetoric, but not very deeply, was the implication that People of Color were primarily, and as a group, collectively, foregoing work in favor of taking free money supplied by lower-class, hard-working, white Americans. Reagan relied upon racism in place of either research or data. It worked then and continues to work now.

    Complicating the story still further was Linda Taylor’s background story as the child of mixed-race parentage in the South where miscegenation was illegal and the product of such a relationship was to be shunned at all costs. The Supreme Court did not strike down laws forbidding Blacks and Whites to marry until 1967 and many southern states sill support the rights of businesses and churches to deny services to mixed-race couples. In some ways, becoming a con-woman was a smart business move on Taylor’s part and she succeeded to such a degree that she seems to have lost all touch with reality or the truth, shifting stories about who she was or what she was up to on the turn of a dime. As a world-class con-artist without regard for veracity she reminds me of a very recent president.

    The Queen is meticulously researched. Every crime on Taylor’s long list is evaluated in full detail and therein lies the downfall of the book. It is gruelingly detailed.

  • The Secret Life of Groceries by Benjamin Lorr **** (of 4)

    At some level all of us who shop for food know that canned tomatoes don’t really grow in cans and that frozen shrimp don’t really come from the freezer. What Benjamin Lorr does so engrossingly well is write about the people who make the system run. He speaks with Burmese shrimpers enslaved by Thai boatmen — seriously enslaved in every sense of the word. He rides with truckers who move every item we own in our homes — try to think of an item that has not been transported by truck — and discovers an industry where nearly every driver is simultaneously on the verge of incipient bankruptcy and utterly replaceable.

    He meets brokers driven to amass new products (check out the cereal aisle to see what is new this week) and interviews entrepreneurs convinced they have the next best thing since the invention of Sriracha. Lorr explains why Fair Trade, and other certifications, are primarily designed to drive sales (to self-aggrandizing shoppers like me), but might not make much difference to growers or to the planet.

    Floor-workers in supermarkets from WalMart to Whole Foods are all subject to unpredictable hours (so no childcare planning and no second jobs) and held to just under the number of hours needed to receive benefits.

    What every hidden stage of the commodity chain has in common with the next link is the capitalistic insistence upon unlimited abundance at the lowest possible price. It all appears as tens of thousands of distinct products whose glaring availability is only possible if we treat the people who make and deliver them as interchangeable, standardized machine parts.

    No one does it more effectively than Amazon (now owner of Whole Foods). The company places haptic monitors on the bodies of its workers to ensure efficiency of motion and penalize wasted efforts, like a pause to scratch an itch.

  • Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury by Evan Osnos **** (of 4)

    Journalism is a first attempt to record history, and Osnos makes an outstanding first pass over the period in America between September 11, 2001 and January 6, 2021. On the first date, the country was (mostly) united in its horror by an attack by a foreign intruder. Twenty years later and the U.S. is riven. Wisely, Osnos uses only three locations in America to track the transformation: a small, de-industrializing town in West Virginia, the Black south side of Chicago, and Greenwich, CT, the wealthiest community in the country.

    Osnos lays blame for the disintegration of the country on income inequality and the undue influence that super-wealthy and corporations have on the electoral process. In short, the poor have gotten poorer and the rich, richer. In West Virginia, poor, aging white Americans whose jobs in the coal mines have disappeared along with their health benefits have absorbed right wing xenophobia and cast themselves as losers in a race war. Wealthy money managers in Greenwich tolerate Trumpism because their ability to continue to live the life of ease gets only easier. And, they never interact with poor Americans. Similarly, many of the Black residents of Chicago that Osnos speaks with have never been to white Chicago. They have not seen the museums, the zoo, parks or the waterfront. They do not get there as tourists, as members of the electoral process, and definitely not as workers.

    Trump figures prominently in the final years — and it is sadly amazing how much deeply racist and hurtful policies and statements he perpetrated that I had blocked from memory — but Osnos paints Trump as a skillful opportunist in the right place at the right time. In time, historians will have a clearer picture, but Osnos has captured an era with superb readability.

  • The Children of Ash and Elm by Neil Price *** (of 4)

    Truly, everything you might ever want to know about Vikings and how they ruled with terrible violence is scrutinized. Scandinavia, Western Europe, and the British Isles from roughly 700 – 1,000 CE were all under Viking rule. What makes the book so compelling, however, is the degree to which the author explains the tools of modern archaeology. Long gone are simple descriptions of dates, rulers, eras, and material culture. In the olden days of archaeology, the past was filtered through strongly clouded lenses. Thusly, the Vikings have largely been described by Christian missionaries who were at first overwhelmed by pagan invaders and later rationalized their missionary zeal for conversion by re-imagining Viking perceptions of the world. Price puts on a pair of 21st century lenses.

    To take one example, Viking religion and belief in their gods was understood only in relation to Christianity, while Price argues rather effectively that even the concept of religion is a construct of monotheism. Price cross-references material objects found in archaeological digs, nordic sagas which mostly tell us what Vikings wanted to believe and fossilize about themselves, and a handful of written accounts left by traders, mostly Arab and a few Jewish who ventured north. The result is a description of life that does its best to describe Vikings as they saw themselves and to expand our vision of the past to include women, LGBTQIA, slaves, immigrants, emigrants, mealtime, daily work, child rearing, and so forth.

    Most remarkable is the degree to which the combination of story and artifacts make clear the extent to which even in the first millennia the Vikings were integrated into a global economy. There are Vikings and Viking things in Egypt, Iraq, India, and China. Walrus tusks, for example, and Viking swords are found along the Silk Road. Simultaneously, there are Vikings buried in silk.

  • I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara *** (of 4)

    One big difference between true crime and mystery novels is that when true crimes are committed, it’s not unusual for the perpetrator to get away. By contrast, in a TV mystery, or a book, the bad guy, by convention, is revealed. Which is why Michelle McNamara essentially joins the “club” of true crime mystery solvers. She has a chance to work on a puzzle whose outcome is so elusive, it might not be solvable; like a super-hard crossword puzzle, only the outcome, if she helps catch a criminal, might really matter.

    McNamara’s focus is one horrific rapist and murderer who through much of the 1970s and 1980s committed dozens of heinous acts. He committed so many it is virtually unimaginable that he could have escaped recognition well into the 2010s despite the dozens of searchers, professional and amateur, combing through thousands of items of evidence. And yet, The Golden State Killer was not.

    What makes “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” so compelling is McNamara’s exquisite attention to detail and writer’s panache for knowing when to use it. She lets us know, for example, the weather on the night of an attack, and the placement of the street lamps and hedgerows, but gives us only enough description for us to know the magnitude of the attack. The violence is inhumane, obsessive on the part of the killer, but not presented gratuitously.

    Complicating the narrative was the untimely death of the author who left behind enough of the manuscript and accompanying articles that ghost writers could ably finish the book. Leaving us to ponder the nature of obsession: in one case a man who preyed on California suburbanites and in the other case, a wife, mother, and author who sat up at night chasing minutiae in hopes of catching him.

  • Dark Towers by David Enrich *** (of 4)

    In a marvelous job of explaining obscure ways of making money, David Enrich details how Deutsche Bank grew from a sleepy, domestic, German lender into the largest bank of the world. The secret mix was greed, testosterone, and a willingness to ignore irrational risks. Banks make money in one of two basic ways. They either lend you money and ask you to pay it back with interest. Or they sell you a financial product – say, a collection of mortgages or loans they’ve made to other people, asking you to share in their profits when their lend-ees repay their debts. The back and forth between customers and vendors is no different then avocados hawked in a Honduran farmer’s market or cars on a lot. The difference comes in the magnitude of the transactions. Hundreds of millions of dollars can move on each interaction (hence, the thrill enjoyed by caffeinated, macho young men) and therein lies the fundamental conundrum of loans.

    If you owe the bank $1000 that you don’t really have, the bank owns you (or at least all of your salable possessions.) But if you owe the bank $100 million that you don’t really have, and the bank in its haste to score your business (and finance your new hotel) wasn’t wise enough to tabulate whether your possessions are worth that much, in essence, you own the bank. No one played that system of promoting a deal better than Donald Trump. He borrowed, and defaulted, on hundreds of millions of dollars, going bankrupt numerous times. Nevertheless, Deutsche Bank in its headlong rush to make money grew so quickly and adored profit to such a sickening degree that it had branches of its bank overlook issues of collateral or the law.

    There is no finer example of the problem of profit over people than the saga of Deutsche Bank. No one played the game of profit over people more effectively than Donal Trump who used Deutsche Bank as a hapless piggy bank on his way to securing the highest CEO job in the world.

  • Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich *** (of 4)

    Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for her oral histories of Russia and the Soviet Union.  Secondhand Time includes exquisitely curated accounts of members of the Former Soviet Union beginning with old-timers that can still recall Stalin.  She speaks with citizens still longing for the stability Stalin’s rule ensured and intermingles enough survivors of the gulag to make clear that nothing was worth the bloodshed and destruction that accompanied Stalin’s tyranny. She continues with accounts from the post-Stalin era through the Yeltsin restoration of order and Gorbachev’s opening to capitalism.  Her interviewees make abundantly clear that replacing the communist ideal of equality for all with the frenzied shark attacks of capitalism has not been a smooth nor beneficial transition.  The oligarchs have profited beyond anyone’s wildest needs and the needy have been left to struggle to survive.  Young people that have never known anything but capitalism, according to their elders, worship materialism over community and mutual support.  Like many Russian pieces of literature, Secondhand Time is extensive and thorough, almost as if you were in kitchen after kitchen drinking Russian tea and then vodka deep into the night.  The final picture is masterful, with one caveat.  Alexievich never really describes her methods and there is some evidence that she has moved quotations from one speaker to another in different publications suggesting some of her books might be as much fiction as non-fiction.  That changes how you read her, I’m afraid.

  • March: Book Three by Andrew Aydin, John Lewis, and John Noel Claude Lewis **** (of 4)

    This is the final installment of the biography of Congressman John Lewis’s youthful campaign for civil rights for America’s black population.  Books One and Two cover the fight for desegregation in the later 1950s and early 1960s.  Book Three details what it took to force President Johnson to introduce legislation allowing the federal government of the United States to override southern states that forbid blacks from voting.  For years John Lewis led the Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee through peaceful demonstrations to enable Americans with dark skin to register to vote like other Americans.  Repeatedly, men and women approaching courthouses hoping to register were met with police beatings, enabled posses of armed white men, obstinate white judges, and murderous Klansmen.  The story is a bloody one and sprinkled throughout are references to an event that was unimaginable in 1964:  John Lewis, the Congressman, attending the inauguration of Barack Obama.  And yet, today, gerrymandering of voting districts mean that Republicans (with negligible support or accountability to black voters) control the Presidency (who did not win the popular vote), both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, and a majority of governorships and statehouses.  Everyone should read this book.  And consider kneeling during the National Anthem.

  • The Cooking Gene by Michael Twitty ** (of 4)

    It is a great idea for research that is long overdue.  Michael Twitty explores the role of enslaved Africans in shaping American foodways.  Think about it.  Africans captured in Africa and transported for sale to American owners brought with them foods and methods of cooking they knew from home.  In America they were forced to work in the kitchens of slave owners and to keep themselves from starving to death too quickly — fieldwork for Africans was no different in duration or difficulty than it was for horses and mules — they grew small household gardens when they could.  In short, their influence on what we know of today as southern cooking was deep and wide.  Twitty is fascinating just by himself:  black, gay, Jewish, historian, and foodie.  Where the book falters, unfortunately, is the confusing intertwining of food history, Twitty’s autobiography, and his search for his genetic roots.  By themselves, each story is a fine thread.  Together, they are a hopelessly tangled series of knots and broken leads.

  • In the Kingdom of Ice by Hamptom Sides **** (of 4)

    At the end of the nineteenth century, because no one had ever been there, the virtual consensus among geographers was that the North Pole resided in a warm, open sea.  One needed only to sail a ship through the ice surrounding it to reach the open ocean.  In 1879, Captain George DeLong and a crew of 30-plus sailors set off for the North Pole.  At end of the their first year, their ship, having failed to find open water, was instead frozen in place, where they remained out of communication with the rest of the world for three years. Half of their time was in near total darkness and nearly all of their days and nights were below freezing.  Finally, sheets of ice crushed and sank the U.S.S. Jeannette.  The crew walked and sailed for hundreds of days across ice floes and freezing oceans with hopes of reaching the coldest landmass on earth, the north coast of Siberia.  The  test of human physical and psychological endurance is simultaneously contemporary and otherworldly.  The relationship of European and American men to the environment, native people of the Arctic, to women, and stoicism is history not to be overlooked.